Since the offseason began, the Detroit Tigers decision makers have consistently cited starting pitching as a key need for the ball club in 2021. The addition of José Ureña brought them some depth and an interesting project pitcher to work with. A second piece should probably be more of a known quantity in terms of effectiveness, even if it’s someone with a substantial injury history. Veteran starter, and Michigan native, Matt Shoemaker might fit the bill.
Shoemaker is, unfortunately, best known for taking a line drive to the head back in 2016 during his tenure with the Los Angeles Angels. He suffered a skull fracture and had to have emergency surgery to stop bleeding on his brain. Shoemaker persevered through that potentially career ending injury, and has generally been an effective pitcher in the years since. The problem is that he’s continued to battle through a relentless tide of injuries and hasn’t made more than 14 starts since 2016.
The now 34-year-old Shoemaker certainly knows a thing or two about fighting through adversity. He wasn’t even drafted out of college and fought his way to the majors after five years of minor league struggles and miserly pay. In 2020, while he dealt with yet another minor injury issue, he also showed signs that he may have put a series of forearm issues behind him. The team who signs him in free agency this offseason will be taking a risk on his health, but may reap the modest potential rewards signaled by some of his metrics. Sounds like a decent fit for the Tigers.
Shoemaker was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, and played his college ball for Eastern Michigan. He went undrafted in 2008, but signed with the Angels as a free agent, ultimately making his major league debut with them in 2013. His best years were the stretch from 2014-2016 where he averaged 24 starts per year with a combined ERA of 3.80.
His repertoire is based around mixing fastballs with liberal doses of his splitter. Shoemaker uses a modified grip rather than a true split, but we’ll go with Statcast’s classification. Shoemaker’s fourseam fastball is less often used than the sinker, but the two types of fastball have traded places back and forth in terms of effectiveness over the years. Both fastballs register in the low 90’s and have above average armside run on them and are roughly league average offerings in general. He also packs a solid slider that he’ll mix in against right-handed hitters.
Shoemaker relies on good fastball command and some funk in his delivery. The pure stuff is interesting but not flashy. He’s a little light on the strikeouts generally, gets a lot of groundballs, doesn’t walk many hitters, and his main weakness is leaving the sinker and slider up in the zone when he doesn’t have good feel for them. Both get hit for plenty of power when he does, though again, he mitigates damage by not giving up many walks and keeping the ball on the ground. Despite somewhat below average strikeout rates, he’s made a nice career out of making hitters earn their success.
Shoemaker’s biggest weakness as a pitcher is his penchant for injuries. After coming back from the skull fracture in 2017, Shoemaker embarked on an odyssey of forearm issues over the next two seasons. He had surgery to repair the radial nerve in his forearm in 2017 and produced mediocre results over just seven starts. Another forearm surgery on his pronator tendon in 2018 cost Shoemaker most of that season too, though he did return in September and pitched well.
As of result of those two years in the wilderness, Shoemaker reached free agency at the age of 32 without much leverage. He inked a one year deal worth $3.5 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019, hoping to put the arm issues behind him. Unfortunately, he never even got to put it to the test as he instead blew out his ACL on April 20 and missed the rest of the season. The man can’t catch a break.
2020 was more of the same. Shoemaker signed on with the Blue Jays again, and recaptured some of his stuff and strikeout touch. The results weren’t impressive however, as he struggled with home runs to an uncharacteristic degree. He went on the 10-day IL with shoulder inflammation after an August 21 start that lasted just three innings and only took the mound once in September.
Why would the Tigers be interested?
Matt Shoemaker is obviously not a high percentage play as a free agent. He belongs in a group with particularly unreliable pitchers like James Paxton and Garrett Richards, and Shoemaker at his best isn’t their equal in talent. There are a few reasons he might be on the Tigers radar anyway.
As we’ve covered at some length, the Tigers need starting pitching next year, but they also need flexibility. The lack of work in 2020 is going to force teams to be very careful with how many innings their starters throw in particular. The Tigers, like many other teams, have speculated that they may look to alleviate the injury risk by using a six man rotation at least some of the time. They’d also like to get their young starters plenty of work without pushing them too far over 100 innings. If they’re going to stick to the bargain bin, a pitcher like Shoemaker actually makes sense for them.
There are a few reasons other than Shoemaker’s Michigan roots that make this a decent possibility. First, there just isn’t likely to be tough competition should the Tigers be interested. The Blue Jays could certainly circle back on him. Keeping his young family stable while playing for a fun young team with an outside shot to contend would presumably be more attractive that playing for the bottom dwelling Tigers. However, the Blue Jays are in pursuit of bigger game for their rotation than Shoemaker, and he’s not likely to be a priority for them.
Still, Shoemaker showed signs of life in 2020. His velocity ticked up two miles per hour over his 2019 numbers. While velocity still isn’t his strength, both fastballs get above average run on them. His whiff rate improved with both fastball types and with his slider as well. The splitter, which he throws 32.5 percent of the time, saw a decline but still drew whiffs at a superb 34.4 percent rate. His stuff also seems to fit some of the Tigers recent organizational interests.
Over the last three seasons, splitters were the most effective pitch in baseball according to both wOBA and xwOBA. Throughout the Tigers system, we’ve seen a corresponding interest in pitchers who throw a splitter over the past few seasons. Beyond drafting Casey Mize, they’ve also experimented with teaching a split-change to several of their other pitching prospects. Splitters are very low spin pitches that can uniquely benefit from seam-shifted wake tuning, and this is a paradigm where the Tigers have an advantage over some other teams in new pitching coach, Chris Fetter.
Hopefully, the Tigers are pursuing a pitcher with a little more upside, but if they decide to stay in the bargain bin, Shoemaker is probably as good as they’re going to get. The likelihood of injury would only provide opportunities for the Tigers prospects in the end, and so isn’t a concern the way it would be on a club with real aspirations in 2021. Shoemaker also isn’t in a position to complain much about how A.J. Hinch and Fetter deploy him, and could function as sort of a short starter and long reliever.
Keeping Shoemaker’s outings short and his pitch counts low could potentially help get the most out of him in 2021. And, if the poor guy can finally get a break in the health department, the Tigers might find themselves with a solid, experienced, and inexpensive mid-rotation starter to deal at the trade deadline.